When we’re first discovering romantic love, we frequently look for someone to love us. We spend time asking ourselves if the other person is good enough for us, by which we mean does he or she reflect back positively on us. What would my parents think? What would my friends or boss think? If we get a positive answer, we’re thrilled! Finally I’m loved by someone good enough to love me. No longer am a single. Now I’m a couple. At last I’m going to get all of my emotional needs met. I always knew I was good enough to be loved even when I didn’t, and now he or she is living proof that I’ve arrived. It’s a little bit like the game of musical chairs where having a partner means we have a seat at the table.
But no sooner are we seated then we go on to worry about the quality of love we’re getting. Is she beautiful enough, cool enough, popular enough, smart enough for me? Is he fixated enough on me? Is she really proud of me? Would he only flirt with me? Just watch an old Seinfeld episode and you’ll see how Elaine, Jerry, and especially George are always wondering if they’re good enough to be loved . They’re dying to be loved.
If we get married and start a family, many of us still have a self-centered preoccupation with the love we’re getting. Is she spending too much time with work? Does he still find me sexy? Is she keeping herself up? Is she losing her figure? Is he paying enough attention to me and the family?
While this is pretty natural for us in the early stages of love and marriage, it makes us so dependent. We are miserable when we think that we aren’t getting the love that marriage promised. We are looking at our partner trying to get more love and our partner’s not offering it. Then the problem becomes how to get our partner to change, to pay us more attention, to be more affectionate, or the reverse: to stop being so needy. We sometimes don’t even realize that we’ve been putting ourselves in the second class position in our own love story waiting, arguing, fighting to be loved by our partner. All we know is that we feel miserable.
But at some point on our journey toward great love the focus begins to shift. It is certainly wonderful to be loved. In fact, we need to be loved or at least liked and respected in order to feel that we matter. But we start to realize that our real power comes when we love, when we live to love, when we make someone else’s welfare as important as ours. I care about my advancement, but I care just as much for your advancement. In fact, I’m even willing to put my wants second to your needs. If the situation is serious enough such as when my partner faces illness or there’s a death in the family, love may require that I put even my routine and my needs second. Parents who have stayed up all night nursing their sick children know a thing or two about how love may ask that we sacrifice ourselves. The message is: I can’t be truly happy if my loved ones are not also happy.
Unfortunately this often is confused with co-dependency. The difference is that co-dependency is really another form of “Will you love me?” It’s just disguised as self-sacrifice and a preoccupation with the other.
The love I’m talking about requires that the partners be strong individuals capable of standing on their own feet, capable even of living on their own and refusing the relationship if it doesn’t work, say, in the case of alcoholism or abuse. But when two strong individuals who like and respect each other embark on the journey of love, each’s focus is not on “am I loved” but rather on “am I loving”. You’ll know you’ve found real love when you enter into a virtuous cycle in which my love for you inspires you to become more loving, and vice versa, when dying to be loved is not as important as living to love!